Sometimes talking about serious subjects, even with friends and family, can cause arguments and bad feelings. But just as Mary Poppins said, “…a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,” humor can make the discussion of serious subjects go down easier. Our guests are two very talented and funny people who use humor, satire and irony to make their points about women in science, and the immigrants’ experience.
- Aasif Mandvi, actor, award-winning playwright, cast member on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and author of the book, No Land’s Man
- Megan Amram, comedian, writer on NBC’s comedy Parks and Recreation, and author of Science…for Her!
15-04 Humor and Serious Topics
Gary Price: It’s not always easy talking about serious topics – even with the best of friends. Discussions can end up in loud and even violent arguments because of differing opinions on issues we hold near and dear; and because of experiences we or our loved-ones have suffered. One way to lighten the mood and still make a point is through humor. Our two guests are experts at approaching the touchiest issues in the news today in a funny way. First, Megan Amram, comedian, author and a writer for NBC’s hit sitcom, Parks and Recreation. Her new book is titled Science…For Her!, a satirical look at how scientific subjects can be presented to appeal to the female brain.
Megan Amram: That looks like a Cosmopolitan magazine matched up with a textbook, and it’s written for all women really who have had trouble with men’s science textbooks their whole life. And I bring it down to their level by talking about science in terms of weight-loss and starting a family, and just things that are applicable to a woman’s life.
Gary Price: Amram’s alter-ego is the featured character in the book that deals with subjects such as carbon dating, differences between viruses and bacteria and ex-boyfriends, periodic table settings, how to build a biological clock out of a potato, and the bachelors of science. The lessons are short, just like those fun articles in women’s magazines, because she says we gals just can’t handle a lot of info all at once.
Megan Amram: The attention span of a woman is so short and cute, because she’s probably thinking of what to cook her man for dinner, etc. So she doesn’t have that much brain space to think about science, and as you could assume women’s brains are much smaller than a man’s, so there’s just not physically that much room in there for multiple attention spans.
Gary Price: All of this is tongue-in-cheek of course, but it does reveal the stereotypes that some still hold about women in science and technology, and that’s just what Amram was going for.
Megan Amram: I feel very strongly about a lot of feminist issues, and about the fact that women have not been treated so well in the public eye or in political forums lately. So instead of writing a manifesto about that, I thought I’d go the somewhat opposite route and say, “okay, well if you think we really are this dumb, then I’m going to assume that you’re right and write as if we are the stupidest creatures on Earth, and can’t understand anything unless it’s put into something having to do with handbags or what is the science of getting down to your birth weight. So I tried to play it as straight as possible, but the person who is narrating this book is the exact opposite of me.
Gary Price: Because she feels so strongly about these topics, Amram says that she uses her comic talent to bring them to the public’s attention.
Megan Amram: I do think it’s a way to point out problems that you think are real in your community or the country, and to do it in a way that’s a little easier to stomach, so it’s like sugar with medicine. I think that’s what satire is, is you’re having a good time, but hopefully you’re also subconsciously thinking of maybe there are sexist things that people are saying or doing all of the time.
Gary Price: Television programs like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report, and the new HBO show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver have been very successful, and Amram says that it’s because politics and social issues are discussed there in a way that’s not only pointed, but entertaining.
Megan Amram: I definitely think that with those kinds of shows there’s a legacy that comedy can really talk about real issues. And that’s always been around to some extent, like satire has been around since the ancient Greeks, but right now I think there’s a renaissance of shows definitely that are trying to have real political commentary. And are often where people go for their real news, which is funny that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and The Onion are where people go to really think about social issues.
Gary Price: Speaking of The Daily Show, you’ll recognize our second guest as a cast member on that program. Aasif Mandvi is an award-winning actor, playwright, author, and a correspondent on The Daily Show. His new book is titled, No Land’s Man and it discusses, in a sometimes funny, always thoughtful way, his life as he moved from India to England and then to the USA with his family. Mandvi says that satire is a very effective way to bring touchy subjects into the public forum.
Aasif Mandvi: There’s a resonance that happens with humor, like you can deal with really important or difficult topics, and via humor it’s an access point. You know, what we do a lot of on The Daily Show is we point out the hypocrisy in things, and that allows people to relate to it. It allows them an access into that issue. And I tried to do the same thing with the book, I took the stuff that I learned on The Daily Show, in that sense, and sort of applied it to the book, but using my life as a template, and telling these sort of vignettes. But I’m also dealing with real issues in the book as well, like race and identity and dislocation and religion and America after 9/11, and being a Muslim American and you know all of these things. But done through a humorous perspective, it allows people an access into those stories, and into those issues and points out certain ironies, hypocrisies that make us think and laugh hopefully at the same time.
Gary Price: Mandvi writes a lot about the immigrant experience here in the US. In a story about his father’s exploratory trip to check out this country before moving from the UK, he tells how his dad was blown away by the concept of “brunch.”
Aasif Mandvi: He came to Florida on a reconnaissance mission to sort of see if this this is the place he wanted to move to. And I guess somebody took him out to eat brunch, and I tell the story in my book about how he tried brunch and was convinced that this was the greatest thing he’d ever had, right? So he thought it was like a third meal between breakfast and lunch, there was another meal, like he called us while we were in England and he said you, “There is so much food in America that between breakfast and lunch they have to stop and eat again! It’s called brunch, $7.95, all you can eat!” So he was like super excited about that, and I’m pretty convinced that, that is why he brought our family to America, so that he could enjoy brunch.
Gary Price: Not only was his father excited about brunch, he was also on the lookout for the best meal deals he could find. Mandvi tells the story to underscore how immigrants to this country view the economic contrasts between their homelands and ours.
Aasif Mandvi: I tell a story in the book about how he made us all wear IHOP t-shirts, and go into various IHOPS. And the t-shirt would say, “International House of Patel” and then it was a way for him to try to get a discount at IHOP. And what I’ve done in that story about my father is as I talk about him specifically, but I’ve also sort of exaggerated certain things about him in him in order to like talk about all immigrant fathers, and you know, this idea of America being the land of opportunity. Where he came from a certain background, and he wasn’t a wealthy kid growing up, he was a poor kid in India, and this idea of the excesses of America, and how they appealed to him in a way, and that’s what drove him. And he was also an Indian guy so he loves a bargain. You know, my dad, if it’s thirty-nine cents more to get the larger size he will spend it, you know he’s always looking for that bargain.
Gary Price: Fitting in as an outsider is a serious topic here in light of the ongoing debate over undocumented immigrants. Mandvi says that he faced problems as an Indian and a Muslim when he lived in the UK, being bullied at school and stereotyped in society. He says that it took him a long time to figure out that humor could create a shield against racism and isolation.
Aasif Mandvi: When I was a kid I remember not really knowing how to deal with that stuff. Feeling ostracized or dealing with racism as a child you don’t exactly always know how to deal it. It’s not until later that you create the armor of humor, and I don’t think of myself really as a comedian, I think of myself primarily as an actor. And I think I did gravitate, probably towards the stage and towards acting as a way to counter some of that disassociation and that ostracization that I was experiencing in the culture at large. It was a way to be accepted in some way, you know?
Gary Price: Being seen as different was certainly tough as a youngster in Britain. But Mandvi says that here in the US it’s just the opposite when you’re an immigrant.
Aasif Mandvi: It’s a very different experience being an immigrant in England, especially an Indian immigrant. You always felt like you were never going to be seen as British, you would always be seen as a foreigner on some level. And then in America when I got here it was the reverse, which was that in America there’s a kind of attitude of like, you’re just American now, like don’t worry about where you came from. Like I talk about in the book that Americans will assume that everyone in the world would choose to be American if they had the choice. And there’s a line there about how Americans see the rest of the world the same way New Yorkers see the rest of America, right? That they don’t. And so this attitude was the flipside of that same immigrant experience that I talked about in England where you were always a foreigner, and then in American you became part of the American tapestry, in a way where your difference was sort of not appreciated.
Gary Price: On The Daily Show, in his book and elsewhere, Mandvi has written humorous stories and played characters that illustrate the stereotypes that linger about certain immigrant and religious populations. He says that his acting has helped him realize that being different in America can be an empowering thing.
Aasif Mandvi: When you’re an immigrant, the tendency is to create a false self in order to fit in, and that is going to happen. And eventually for me it came through acting and performing and finding my own voice and integrating that false self back into an authentic self, and to hold onto my difference. I think one of the greatest beliefs I found is that my differences are actually a source of power rather than a source of dislocation and a disenfranchisement as it were. So I would embrace the difference.
Gary Price: You can read about how Aasif Mandvi dealt with the difference through childhood and in his successful acting career in his new book, No Land’s Man, available in stores and online. To read a hilarious send-up of women and science, pick up Megan Amram’s book, Science…For Her! Also in stores and online. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpointsonline.net. I’m Gary Price.
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